Friday, September 25, 2015

Me, Myself and I

Sermon preached September 20, 2015

Texts: James 3:13-4:3, 7-8a; Mark 9:30-37

Billie Holiday, “Me, Myself and I”
An elderly gentleman operated an antique shop in a large tourist city.  A visitor to his store once came in and began conversing with the old gentleman.  The tourist asked about some of the items that were piled all throughout the store.  Said the tourist, “What would you say is the strangest, most mysterious thing you have here?”  The old man looked around at the unique art, the stuffed animals, the old toys, wonderful stones.  He then replied to the tourist, “The strangest and most mysterious thing in this shop is unquestionably me.”
A teacher was lecturing her students on modern inventions.  “Can any of you name something of importance that did not exist fifty years ago?” she asked the class.  One bright young girl, sitting near the front, raised her hand and said, “Me!”  (Anthony DeMillo, Taking Flight, 131)
Mysterious, strange perhaps, unique, important – me, myself and I.  Yet such thoughts seem to run counter to much of Scripture and Christian tradition.  C. S. Lewis, in the words used in our invitation to worship, gives us every reason to suspect the self.  “You are a bundle of self-centered fears, hopes, greeds, jealousies, and self-conceit.”  Not a very flattering portrait, but one not foreign to much Christian thinking.  These words come from the Eastern monastic tradition of Christianity, from about the eighth century: There is no greater evil than that of self-love.  The winged children of self-love are self-praise, self-satisfaction, gluttony, unchastity, self-esteem, jealousy and the crown of all these, pride.  Pride can drag down not men alone, but even angels from heaven, and surround them with darkness instead of light. (St. Hesychios the Priest, Philokalia, I:198)
Today’s Scripture readings would lead us to be suspicious of any celebrations of the self.  James issues a warning against self-ambition, a caution against the cravings of the self.  Selfish ambition leads to disorder and wickedness, disputes and conflicts.  The words of Jesus seem to caution against being too fond of oneself.  “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
Me, myself and I seems to be a problem for a Jesus spirituality.  Self easily inflates, and we must guard against that.  Self craves, and those cravings are trouble.  As an alternative way we are directed toward being pure, gentle, willing to yield, and merciful.  As an alternative way we are offered the image of a child, a virtual nobody in the culture of Jesus time.
I don’t know about you, but to see the self only as a problem is itself problematic.  In college I majored in both philosophy and psychology.  I was drawn to psychology in high school, and I was particularly drawn to the work of Abraham Maslow, a vitally important figure in what was often called “humanistic psychology.”  Maslow, in his work, views self-esteem quite differently.  “No psychological health is possible unless this essential core of the person is fundamentally accepted, loved and respected by others and by himself” (Toward a Psychology of Being, 196).  For Maslow, this is not simply the popular idea that we need to feel good about ourselves.  It is more complex and robust.  Self-esteem and self-respect needs are desires for genuine achievement, for “real capacity, competence, and adequacy to the task” (Maslow, Motivation and Personality, Second Edition, 45-46).  In other words we have needs for esteem and love that include some sense of our own abilities to affect the world.  Maslow: Satisfaction of the self-esteem need leads to feelings of self-confidence, worth, strength, capability, and adequacy, of being useful and necessary in the world (Motivation and Personality, 45)
Another psychologist from whom I have and continue to learn a lot from is Rollo May.  He also writes profoundly about self-esteem.  To be sure, one ought not to think too highly of one’s self, and a courageous humility is the mark of the realistic and mature person.  But thinking too highly of oneself, in the sense of self-inflation and conceit, does not come from greater consciousness of one’s self or greater feelings of self-worth.  In fact, it comes from just the opposite.  Self-inflation and conceit are generally the external signs of inner emptiness and self-doubt; a show of pride is one of the most common covers for anxiety. (Man’s Search for Himself, 97)
Christian Scriptures and tradition caution us against an inflated sense of self, against selfish ambition, against too great a concern for personal “greatness.”  Psychologists complicate the picture by arguing for the importance of self-esteem.  They also point out that self-inflation often comes not from too much self-esteem, but from too little – from emptiness and self-doubt.  Certainly Jesus and James were not interested in fostering a sense of emptiness and self-doubt that would, ironically, feed the very kind of self-aggrandizement they find problematic.
How do we fit all this together?  What does an appropriate Christian sense of self look like?  I think William Stringfellow, also in our Invitation to Worship, is on to something when he writes, “what it means to be a Christian is, wonderfully, just synonymous with what it means to be, no more and no less than a human being.”  What does it mean to be a human being in relation to God and to others?  What sense of self makes sense?
A Christian sense of self is neither a denigration of oneself nor self-aggrandizement, being too enamored with oneself.  A Christian sense of self has strength and gentleness.  Here are some of its elements.
A Christian sense of self is rooted, above all, in knowing that we are unalterably and wonderfully loved by God.  The first four words of many a Christian’s favorite Scripture reading are, “For God so loved…”  Abraham Maslow indicates that no psychological health is possible unless this essential core of the person is fundamentally accepted, loved and respected by others and by himself.  I think no deep spiritual health is possible without knowing deeply and fundamentally that we are accepted and loved by God just as we are.  We are worthy of respect and self-respect simply because we are.
But genuine self-esteem has something to do with knowing that we are capable, that we can be adequate to the task.  A Christian sense of self recognizes that we have gifts and strengths and limitations.  The journey with Jesus requires strength.  Sometimes our strengths are also part of our limitations.  You have to hand it to the disciples.  They are an audacious bunch.  They leave their everyday lives behind to follow this Jesus, who they often don’t get.  He says that he is going to be in for trouble in Jerusalem, that his end is death, and they are arguing about who is the greatest!  They wanted to be significant.  They wanted to make a difference.  These are gifts, but they can go awry.  A courageous humility is an important part of a Christian sense of self, courage to see our strengths, courage to see our limitations.
Humility is another essential element in a Christian sense of self.  I really like what Robert Emmons writes about humility.  Humility is the realistic appraisal of one’s strengths and weaknesses – neither overestimating nor underestimating them.  To be humble is not to have a low opinion of oneself, it is to have an accurate opinion of oneself.  It is the ability to keep one’s talents and accomplishments in perspective, to have a sense of self-acceptance, and understanding of one’s imperfections, and to be free from arrogance and low self-esteem. (The Psychology of Ultimate Concerns, 171).  Humility is recognizing simultaneously that we are loved deeply and wildly by God, and that God isn’t finished with us yet.
That sense of being unfinished is also an important element in a Christian sense of self.  The disciples keep learning and growing in their journey with Jesus.  Jesus holds up welcoming children in the Gospel reading.  Children are open and vulnerable and growing.  Can we welcome that part of ourselves?  Can we be open and vulnerable and continue to grow – grow in that wisdom that is pure, peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits (James 3:17)?
But to say that being open and vulnerable is an important element in a Christian sense of self means more than being open to our own growth, as important as that is.  It also means being open to the other.  A Christian sense of self understands that our relationships matter, and how we live together with others not only flows from who we are but shapes who we are.  “Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom.”  Welcome children.
Another essential element in a Christian sense of self is a recognition of our need for forgiveness.  We are people with high ideals.  We look to Jesus and say we want to be like him.  We want to be wise and loving, gentle and generous.  We want to touch the world in ways that foster justice, peace and reconciliation.  We will not always be those people.  We will need forgiveness.
Having said that, I want to return to an earlier element in a Christian sense of self, that we are gifted, that we have strengths.  We are and we do, and we need to help each other discover and use our best gifts, and we need to celebrate those gifts joyously.  Throughout its history, the church has often focused on humility to the point of humiliation.  We have focused on sin and wrongdoing to the point where we have left people feeling that they are not much good for anything except to beg God for a modicum of love, and hope that they are good enough to get some.  We’ve not always done a good job of reminding people of the wild love and grace of God which loves each of us beyond measure, and that we are created in God’s image with strengths and gifts.
Here’s the wonderful paradox and mystery at the heart of a Christian sense of self.  At the heart of a Christian sense of self isn’t the self, but it is God, God who loves us into being and into blossoming.

There is in the Talmud, that vast and wonderful collection of Jewish wisdom this wonderful saying.  “Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers ‘Grow, grow.’” (Midrash Rabba Bereshit 10:6)  Every person has the Spirit of God whispering to them, “You are loved, become love – grow, grow.”  In that we find our sense of self.  In that our self-esteem is grounded.  Listen to the voice again in your own life.  Amen.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

Welcome to the Wild Kingdom

Sermon preached September 13, 2015

Texts: Psalm 19:1-4 (Common English Bible); Mark 8:27-38

Paul McCartney and Wings, “Live and Let Die”
So welcome and here’s your morning quiz.  Who sang that song?  [Paul McCartney and Wings]  It was for a movie, what kind of movie? [James Bond]  What drink is James Bond most famous for? [vodka martini – shaken not stirred]
So I looked up James Bond’s favorite drink.  You mix two parts vodka, with one part dry vermouth, perhaps with a dash of bitters, put it together with ice and shake it up.  Pour it into a cocktail glass and garnish with an olive.  By the way, The United Methodist Church does not promote the use of alcohol even though I’ve just given you a drink recipe.
Two distinct ingredients blended together.  It is a little like trying to deal with this morning’s Scripture readings.  The verses we read from Psalm 19 are effusive, splendid, filled with awe and wonder.  Heaven is declaring God’s glory; the sky is proclaiming God’s handiwork.  One day gushes the news to the next, one night informs another what needs to be known.  What is just as wondrous is that all this communicating is happening without words – a wordless sermon, so to speak.  Maybe I should give that a try sometime!  Of course, there’s no speech, no words – their voices can’t be heard – but their sound extends throughout the world; their words reach the ends of the earth.
Take that ingredient and blend it with the more serious and austere words from the Gospel of Mark.  Jesus sternly orders the disciples not to say anything about their insight that he is the Messiah, the Christ.  He goes on to say that he will suffer and be killed and rise.  Peter tries to talk some sense into Jesus, and Jesus calls Peter Satan.  Then he tells disciples and crowd alike: If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it.  For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?  Indeed, what can they give in return for their life?
So how do we mix these two readings together?  Together I think we have here an invitation from Jesus to a new way, to a wild kingdom.  While the language in Mark is serious and austere, there is in the flow of the conversation a certain wild element that would not be foreign to the Psalmist.  You see, what Peter expected in a Messiah seemed to be a straight road to power and glory.  Somehow God through Jesus was going to intervene, Rome would be tossed out of Palestine/Israel, and all would be right with the world.  The Jesus way was different, however – unexpected, wild, a challenging adventure.
It is interesting that soon after the confession that Jesus is the Messiah, Jesus begins to talk about being a part of this work.  “You are the Messiah,” they say, and Jesus responds, “Here’s what it means to follow me.”  The kingdom Jesus is about is not just something that’s going to happen, we are invited to be a part of its happening.  The road won’t be straight and it won’t be easy, but it will be an adventure, a wild ride.  To say “no” means risking a life that is no life at all, a soulless existence.  The Greek word translated “life” can also be translated “soul.”  What will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their soul?
This new life in Jesus, this soul life, this participation in the wild kingdom of God where day gushes forth to day, takes everything we have, calls forth our best gifts and our deepest strengths, but it is a way of joy.  I think of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words, Bonhoeffer the German Christian theologian who lost his life in the waning days of World War II for his opposition to the Nazi regime.  Where will the call of discipleship lead those who follow it?  What decisions and painful separations will it entail?  We must take this question to him alone who knows the answer.  Only Jesus Christ, who bids us follow him, knows where the path will lead.  But we know it will be a path of mercy beyond measure.  Discipleship is joy. (Discipleship, 40)
If there is a wideness to God’s mercy, and an old hymn proclaims, there is also a wildness to God’s mercy, and invitation to adventure.  The United Methodist theologian and author Leonard Sweet encourages us to walk “on the wild side of life, where the winds from the God of Holy Surprises blow and sing” (quoted in 1995 Conference sermon, “Wildly Wise and Winged”).
What does that mean – the wildness of God’s grace, welcome to the wild kingdom?  Living in the wild kingdom of God has something to do with saying “yes” to another 46,000 pounds of potatoes one week after giving away 46,000 pounds.  It has something to do with gathering for worship on Sunday mornings when many of our friends and acquaintances consider Sunday morning little more than a few more hours of pre-game before kick-off.  Living in the wild kingdom of God is the wildness of a tenacious hope, when there are so many reasons to lose hope in our world – hope amidst the heartbreak of reading the daily news.  It is to be joyful, though we have considered all the facts, in a wonderful phrase of Wendell Berry.  Spiritual writer and Christian monk Henri Nouwen puts this well.  “Joyful persons see with open eyes the hard reality of human existence and at the same time are not imprisoned by it” (quoted in “Wildly Wise and Winged”).  Living in the wild kingdom of God is loving even when it is hard work to love, being kind even when it is complicated.  Living in the wild kingdom of God is being generous in a world that often tells us what matters most is to have the most toys in the end.
Generosity.  Today we are embarking on a capital campaign: People, Place, Purpose – A Promise for the Future.  After nearly fifty years on the skyline, there are some things that need doing, or doing again.  We are not our building.  We are our people and the work we do together, the love we share, the encouragement we provide, the work we do together for God’s wild kingdom.  Our building helps many things happen.  It is a great place for 90K plus pounds of potatoes to be given away in two weeks, for instance.  I trust as you hear more about this campaign you will be prayerful and thoughtful about how participating in it can be part of your wider participation in the wild adventure of God in Jesus.
Yet Jesus’ invitation to the soulful life, to God’s wild kingdom is broader, richer, deeper than the capital campaign.  It is an invitation to the adventure of new life.
Twenty five years ago my family and I were living in Dallas, Texas.  Our family was smaller then.  Our daughter Sarah is not yet twenty-five.  I was working on my Ph.D. and working as a youth pastor at a United Methodist Church, and Julie was teaching school.  Twenty five years ago, PBS broadcast a new documentary by Ken Burns, “The Civil War.”  I tried to watch some of it as I could then, and was quite taken by it.  This week PBS has re-broadcast the series, and I have tried to watch some of it again, and still find it fascinating.
One of the significant voices in the series is the poet Walt Whitman.  Whitman had published his first and second editions of his work Leaves of Grass before the outbreak of the Civil War.  In 1865, following the war, he published Drum Taps, a small volume of poems touching on the themes of the war and on the death of Abraham Lincoln.  During part of the war, Whitman has served as nurse in hospital in Washington, D.C. where he had seen some of the horror of the battles.  In his book of poems, Drum Taps, Whitman writes a poem about life in the face of “plodding and sordid crowds,” of “the empty and useless years.”  He poses a question.  “What good amid these, O me, O life?”  It is a powerful question following a devastating war and the tragedy of a presidential assassination.
Here’s Whitman’s response in the 1865 poem.  That you are here – that life exists and identity;/That the powerful play goes on, and you will contribute a verse.  Whitman is saying that even after the devastation, the powerful play of life goes on, and you will contribute to it.
But Whitman revised his work over time, and ended up incorporating many of the poems of Drum Taps into future editions of Leaves of Grass.  What fascinates me is how he changes this poem, “O Me, O Life” from 1865 to its final version in 1892.  That you are here – that life exists and identity,/That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
In that change in Whitman’s poem I hear an echo of the choice Jesus offers us.  There is no question that each of us in our lives, contributes some verse to the ongoing poem or song of life.  We are here and exist.  We touch other lives and the world.  What we have a choice about is the character of the verse we offer to the on-going play of life.  We will contribute a verse, but we may make it a song of hope, joy, love, kindness, and generosity, a song that sings of a new life, a soulful life, an adventure in a wild kingdom, a song that gushes from day to day and sings from night to night, a song that praises God.
A final thought.  Adventure is what we are made for: plunging into new territories, daring to open up to Beauty’s rich intelligence and fascinating insights.  So writes Patricia Adams Farmer in her lovely book Embracing a Beautiful God (46).  She goes on, we need fellow travelers for this journey into the adventure of ideas (46).
Welcome to the wild kingdom, where we live a new kind of life in Jesus, letting somethings in our lives die because they are not soulful.  We are on this adventurous journey together, and that is a source of great joy.  I am proud to be your pastor.  I am proud to be your pastor not because we have an architecturally significant building in one of the best locations in the city, a place that most people can find if you just say “Coppertop.”  That’s nice and it matters and we want to care for this building, and I really appreciate the view from my office.  I am proud to be your pastor because of what we do together here.  We worship in this space.  We give space to others.  We welcome people here to stretch their food budget every month, and into this space.  We work with others in the community to feed the hungry and help the hurting.  We gently and lovingly invite others to journey with Jesus and journey with us.  We hold each other in our hearts in times of great joy and times of deep sadness.

It is a joy to be on this wild kingdom adventure with you.  Amen.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Common Ground, Common Good

Sermon preached September 6, 2015

Texts: Proverbs 22:1-2, 8-9, 22-23; James 2:1-9; Mark 7:24-30

            Alice Cooper, “Elected”
Labor Day is often associated with politics.  People tend not to pay a lot of attention to elections until this weekend, and many candidates use this weekend to begin campaigning in earnest.  Of course, already the 2016 presidential election is making a great deal of news.  The presidential political season seems to have begun early.  The intertwining of theology and politics has also begun.  I saw a picture on Twitter from a big Donald Trump rally in Alabama.  A woman was holding a sign reading “Thank you Lord Jesus for President Trump.”
I did not grow up in a very political family.  There were no yard signs or bumper stickers at our house indicating any political preference.  We did not discuss political issues at the dinner table, or really ever.  Somehow, though, I developed an interest in politics. Here is a book I ordered from Scholastic, probably in third grade – The Arrow Book of Presidents.  This also tells you I enjoy buying books and hang on to them for a really long time.  In this book, I wrote about the 1968 and 1972 presidential elections.  I noted when Dwight Eisenhower and Lyndon Johnson died.  Out of a non-political family, I became interested in politics.  I remember watching the Watergate hearings, which said more about my interest in television because in the summer of 1973 that was the only thing that was on tv.  But I watched.
So I developed this interest in politics, and still maintain that interest.  As my faith grew and developed, what interests me most and engages me most are the theological-moral issues wrapped up in political issues.  I also became interested in the theology and ethics of democracy.  Some of you know that I hold a Ph.D. in religious studies from Southern Methodist University.  My dissertation, and this is the “look how hard I worked” version – bound with print on one side of a page, is entitled “Political Majorities, Political Minorities and the Common Good: an analysis of understandings of democracy in recent Christian political ethics.”
In that dissertation I argue that the heart of a politics rooted in the Bible and Christian faith is some notion of the common good.  More importantly in my on-going thinking and living as a Christian, I believe that the moral core of a Christian politics is working for the common good.  The common good points toward a social arrangement, a quality of community, where all can share in the goodness of the community and all have opportunity for growth, development and flourishing.  It is a quality of shared life characterized by work toward justice; enhancing freedom – particularly the freedom to grow, develop and flourish; enhancing relationships – which involves increasing inclusion and encouraging participation in the decision-making processes of the community.  The common good, ultimately, is a way of thinking about how the Biblical idea of the Kingdom of God relates to our lives here and now.  Theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff argues that the Kingdom of God is a vision of shalom where peace characterizes our relationships with God, self and others, and where justice and peace embrace joyfully.  This, he says “is both God’s cause in the world and our human calling” (Until Justice and Peace Embrace, 72).
The heart of a politics rooted in the Bible and Christian faith is some notion of the common good.  The moral core of a Christian politics is working for the common good.  I think this means trying to find common ground with others.  I think this means seeing the common humanity of others.  But that has been a challenge throughout human history.
Proverbs: Do not rob the poor because they are poor, or crush the afflicted at the gate; for the Lord pleads their cause….  Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity….  The rich and the poor have this in common: the Lord is the make of them all.  Here is the challenge to find common ground, to see common humanity, to work for the common good.
But we need to be reminded.  Hundreds of years later, in the emerging Jesus community, James offers that reminder.  My brothers and sisters, do you with your acts of favoritism really believe in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ?  So believing has consequences for how we live, apparently.  If a person with gold rings and fine clothes comes into your assembly, and if a poor person in dirty clothes comes in, and if you take notice of the one wearing the fine clothes and say, “Have a seat here, please,” while to the one who is poor you say, “Stand there,” or, “Sit at my feet,” have you not made distinctions among yourselves?...  You have dishonored the poor….  You do well if you really fulfill the royal law according to the scripture, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  But if you show partiality, you commit sin.
It is rather sad that communities claiming the name of Jesus struggle with this as much as we do.  There are few more powerful stories about recognizing common humanity than the story told in Mark 7, the encounter between Jesus and the Syro-Phonecian woman.  Jesus is tired in Tyre.  He needed some down time, but this woman finds him out.  She is a Gentile, a Syrophonecian with a little daughter who was hurting.  She came to Jesus and begged him for help.  This may not have been an easy thing for her to do, seeking help from a wandering Jewish teacher.  Jesus makes her quest more uncomfortable with his uncharacteristically terse and unkind response.  “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  To be compared to a dog was highly insulting, for dogs were regarded as shameless and unclean.  Her tenacity and wit are remarkable.  “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  Jesus understands something.  “For saying that, you may go – the demon has left your daughter.”  Jesus should not have been talking alone with a woman, let alone a Gentile woman.  Their encounter is fascinating and in some ways they both benefit.  Jesus initially seems to see only a Gentile woman asking for something from him.  He ends up seeing her common humanity, sees her as a caring mother and as a bright woman.  His initial response calls out her strength, perhaps she sees herself differently because of her ability to respond so well.  The result is healing.
Seeing common humanity, seeking common ground, working for the common good – these are part of the work of God in the world and part of our calling from God.  They are a part of kindness.  Let me again refer to the theologian Robert Neville who I quoted last week.  Christianity first and foremost is about being kind.  Love is the more customary word than kindness, but love is too complicated in its symbols, too loaded with history, to be a plain introduction to Christianity. 
Christian faith is about kindness which involves seeing common humanity and working for the common good.  This is the heart of relationship between Christian faith and political engagement, but this broad understanding of the moral core of Christian politics leaves a lot of questions open, as it should.  Neville writes: Sometimes it is hard to tell in what kindness consists.  Whether a social welfare system is ultimately kind if it creates a long-term dependent class of people is a debatable point at this stage, and how to amend it to make it more kind is also debatable.  But some obvious and up-front meanings of kindness should be affirmed before stumbling on hard cases.  These include being generous, sympathetic, being willing to help those in immediate need, and ready to play roles for people on occasions of suffering, trouble, joy and celebration that might more naturally be played by family or close friends who are absent.  (Symbols of Jesus, xviii)
What kindness, what the common good require, in any time and any context can and should be debated.  I would suggest this morning, though, that having a three-year old Syrian fleeing the violence in his country wash up dead on a Turkish shore cannot fit any Christian idea of common humanity, common good, or kindness.  How to respond is complicated, but not caring is not an option for us.
Let me also suggest this morning that being drawn to seeing common humanity, seeking common ground, and working for the common good requires our willingness to engage in difficult conversations about our society and the world.  Let me mention a couple just briefly as we move toward the end of this sermon.
Today, the African Methodist Episcopal Church is asking predominantly white Christian churches to engage seriously in conversations about race and racism.  The AME was created in the United States out of the broader Methodist movement due to racial exclusion.  We need to continue to talk about race in this country, and some of these conversations will be uncomfortable.  After the recent shooting of a deputy sheriff in Houston, the county sheriff suggested that we get beyond Black Lives Matter and simply affirm that all lives matter.  Wouldn’t that be the best way to affirm our common humanity?  At one level, yes, of course.  However, we cannot simply speak in abstractions.  We must take seriously our history and in the history of this country black lives have mattered less.  Recognizing the common humanity of black persons means understanding something of their unique history – including slavery and discrimination, and reaching toward a mutual sharing of stories, working toward a common good.
There is a unique history for Native American persons that needs to be heard as well.  In the coming months in our community we will be invited to hear stories of Native children forcibly removed from home and family and sent to boarding schools where they were punished for speaking their language or expressing their heritage.  The point of hearing these stories is not to engender paralyzing guilt but to enhance mutual understanding, to see common humanity and find common ground for common good.
We are struggling in this country with wide gaps in inequality that are eroding opportunities for too many of our people.  Equality of results is not the definition of justice, but too great an inequality is inconsistent with justice and the common good.
By one measure, U.S. income inequality is the highest it’s been since 1928. In 1982, the highest-earning 1% of families received 10.8% of all pretax income, while the bottom 90% received 64.7% (according to research by UC-Berkeley professor Emmanuel Saez). Three decades later (according to Saez’ preliminary estimates for 2012) the top 1% received 22.5% of pretax income, while the bottom 90%’s share had fallen to 49.6%.  Wealth inequality is even greater than income inequality. A NYU economist (Edward Wolff) has found that, while the highest-earning fifth of U.S. families earned 59.1% of all income, the richest fifth held 88.9% of all wealth. (Pew Research)  It is difficult to fathom that such inequality is consistent with the common good.

So here’s my hope in the coming months as politics again becomes more prominent in our national life.  I hope that we will, in the Spirit of Jesus promote healthy conversations about challenging issues, conversations that carry beyond the political season, and that go beyond electoral politics.  I hope we will, in the Spirit of Jesus, see common humanity, seek common ground to address important issues, and work for the common good.  In short, I hope we will be part of God’s work in the world of offering hope and healing, and offering it right from this place on the skyline.  Amen.

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Within You, Without You

Sermon preached August 30, 2015
First United Methodist Church, Duluth

            The Beatles, “Within You, Without You”
            This song is rather famous in the history of popular music for the use it made of classical Indian music.  That is an interesting story, but let me tell you another story entirely.
            Earlier this year I was preparing to officiate at a funeral.  I was having a conversation with a daughter of the person who had died and whose life we would be celebrating.  The daughter asked me what I would preach.  The tone of the question was a little interesting, but I responded that during my reflection I wove stories about the person with thoughts about Christian faith.  “So you preach salvation?”  This seemed to be coming from a certain Christian theological perspective that I was not sure I shared with this person, and I wanted to be forthcoming.  I did not want them to expect me to say something I would not say.  “If by that you mean do I tell people unless they get their hearts right with God through Jesus they are going to hell, no, that’s not what I think funerals are for.  I invite people to trust their lives to God, but I say that in the context of celebrating a person’s life.”  “Well, you know,” she said, “it’s about more than being good.”
            At that moment it became clear to me that this person, who was not United Methodist, nor, I think a member of a church in what has come to be called mainline Christianity, this person was concerned that I was going to say what a good person her father was and because he was a good person, he was now in heaven.  That was her view of what mainline churches teach about Christianity, and she clearly thinks that such a view is wrong.
            It’s about more than being good.  Christian faith is about more than being good.  Is it?  A few years ago, a theologian whose works I find interesting and helpful, Robert Neville – who also happened to teach at a United Methodist seminary and to be an ordained United Methodist – Robert Neville wrote this: Christianity first and foremost is about being kind.  Love is the more customary word than kindness, but love is too complicated in its symbols, too loaded with history, to be a plain introduction to Christianity….  Sometimes it is hard to tell in what kindness consists….  But some obvious and up-front meanings of kindness should be affirmed before stumbling on hard cases.  These include being generous, sympathetic, being willing to help those in immediate need, and ready to play roles for people on occasions of suffering, trouble, joy and celebration that might more naturally be played by family or close friends who are absent.  (Symbols of Jesus, xviii)
            I’m not sure I find much to disagree with in this passage of writing, but here’s where I think confusion sometimes enters.  Sometimes we hear that Christianity is first and foremost about being kind as a statement that says, “If we are kind, then God will like us and will admit us into heaven when we die.”  For some reason, we might slip into thinking that Christian faith is about how we earn God’s love and favor.  Christian faith is NOT about that.  It is about kindness and doing good, but not as a way to earn God’s love, earn God’s favor.  If I emphasize kindness and goodness as essential to Christian faith, I do not in any way mean to say that they are what earn us God’s love.  We are not about chalking up brownie points in order to punch our ticket to heaven.
            Christian faith, at a deep level, is really about grace, about a love that does not fit into calculations of earning.  Christian faith is about a God of grace, and our response to this God and this grace in trust and openness.  What the woman questioning me about salvation and her father’s funeral seemed to think, or at least what many Christians who criticize more liberal or mainline Christians think is that it is all about accepting Jesus Christ as your savior.  Do that and you’re in, meaning in heaven, and that’s the heart of Christianity.  I think this, too, is a misunderstanding of the heart of Christianity just as is the idea that we earn our way into God’s love.
            Let me explain.  We ask, at baptism, for instance, “Do you accept Jesus Christ as your savior, put your whole trust in his grace.”  That is an important question, a vitally important question.  At its best what it means is that we are saying “yes” to the God who is already touching our lives with grace.  To accept Jesus Christ as savior is to trust in God’s love.  Trust is the essence of faith.  As I mentioned last week, the religious philosopher Donald Evans argues that “the most crucial personal struggle in religion, morality, and life is between trust and distrust” (Struggle and Fulfillment, 2).  Evans argues that it is a struggle between basic trust and basic distrust, where basic trust is “an initial openness to whatever is life-affirming in nature and other people and oneself” (2).  We trust that God is gracious and at work in the world creating and encouraging the creation of what Patricia Adams Farmer calls “the fullness of Beauty’s gifts: love, creativity, joy, forgiveness, courage, compassion, enchantment, serenity, and faith for coping and transcending whatever challenges you face in this unsettling world of ours” (Embracing a Beautiful God, 2).
            Christian faith is not about earning, it is about response, a trusting response to God’s grace, love, and beauty.  Our response is not simply to soak it all in, though there should be moments for that, moments when the grace of God and love of God and beauty of God simply seep over and into us.  Our response is not simply to soak it all in, but to serve.  Christian faith is about being loved and then loving.  Christian faith is about being embraced and then embracing.  This grace of God is a grace that is up to something.  It moves us, shapes us, embraces us, nudges us.  This is what the writer of James is getting at, active grace.  “Be doers of the word, and not merely hearers….  Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” (1:22, 27)  The baptismal question is a little longer: Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace and promise to serve him as your Lord in union with the Church which Christ has opened to all people?
            This active grace of God does not simply affect how we act.  The grace of God touches and shapes our hearts, our souls, our innards. James, who so strongly speaks of actions that respond to grace, also speaks about the power of grace within.  He writes of “the implanted word that has the power to save your souls” (1:21)  Jesus emphasizes the human heart in the controversy with some Pharisees in Mark 7.  “It is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come” (7:21).  Our hearts need work, too, need the touch of grace.  Responding to God’s grace affects us, within you, without you.  It is not just about the afterlife but about what we are after in this life.
            Within and without, both are needed.  Both dimensions of our lives are meant to be places where we respond to God’s grace and so are changed.  Christian faith is not about earning God’s love or God’s favor, it is about being touched and transformed by God’s grace within you, without you. 
Biblical scholar and theologian Marcus Borg argues that there are “two transformations at the heart of the Christian life: the individual-spiritual-personal and the communal-social-political” (The Heart of Christianity, 103).  “The Christian life is about… ‘being born again’ and the ‘Kingdom of God’” (126).
Therapist Michael Eigen, whose works continue to help me think and grow, hints at this need for multidimensional transformation.  You can’t just work on institutional injustices without the actual people who are involved working on themselves, and you can’t just work on yourself without working on the injustices in society….  Without work in the trenches of our nature, we may wreck what we try to create. (Michael Eigen, Faith, 96, 7). 
I’ve used this image of the Mobius strip before to describe how God’s grace works in our lives, to talk about the kind of transformation God seeks to work in our lives.  The Mobius strip links inner and outer – heart and mind and action, kind actions with kind souls.  Responding to God’s grace, we are changed inside.  Responding to God’s grace, we live differently, more joyously, more genuinely, more gently, more generously, working for justice.
At the end of things, I structured my remarks at the funeral I began with in the ways that I typically do, weaving life story and Christian faith together.  The woman’s father was a good man, and a person of Christian faith.  I did not say that because he was good, he had earned his way into heaven.  That’s not what I believe.  That’s not the story for mainline churches.  I affirmed that God received this man in love and that God’s love was there for all who were grieving.  Whatever qualms the daughter may have had before the service, she was pleased afterwards.
Christian faith and life are about inner transformation.  They are about doing good, living with kindness.  And centrally, Christian faith and life are about trusting a God of grace and love who is ultimately trustworthy.  Christian faith and life are not about “earning salvation” but about yearning for more.  In words I used last week from theologian Andrew Shanks, yearning “to imagine more, to feel more, to think more – in short, to love more.  And so to be inwardly changed.  Changed, in the sense of saved.” (Shanks, What is Truth?, 5)

I am a Christian not because I fear death and have a gnawing sense that I might be cast into the abyss.  I am a Christian because I know something of the grace of God in Jesus Christ, and being touched by that grace I am on a journey of being made different, within and without.  In the grace of God I find some sense made of my yearnings to imagine more, to feel more, to think more, to love more.  This Mobius strip I have here I made on a retreat.  I made it in response to an exercise in self-description.  God’s grace helps me make sense of my life.  I am not worried about earning God’s grace, instead I yearn to be made whole by that grace, to be forgiven, to be made new.  When the end of my life comes, and I hope that will be awhile yet, but when the end of my life comes, I will trust God for it, even as I trust God now.  For now, the journey continues -  the journey with Jesus for a heart out of which kindness will flow, rather than evil intention, the journey with Jesus to be a doer and not just a hearer.  The journey is open to all of us.  God’s grace is there for all of us, awaiting our response in trust and openness.  Amen.